Happy 100th Birthday, Gardnar Mulloy
by James Buddell|
Gardnar Mulloy is celebrating his 100th birthday today.
He’s the first International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee to reach the age milestone and shuffles around now using a walking frame, much to his frustration. But his mind remains just as sharp as the decisive volleys, dipping service returns and well-placed smashes he started striking as an amateur on the international tennis circuit of the 1930s.
Mulloy was 11 when his father, Robin, built a tennis court in the backyard of the family home in Spring Garden, Miami. "I played [American] football and baseball in the city, before my father got me into tennis," Mulloy told ATPWorldTour.com. "Eventually, we won the U.S. National Father & Sons’ title three times. I enjoyed competing, but when I grew up it was considered a ‘sissy’ sport in the United States."
Mulloy was not disheartened. He didn't stop playing tennis for the next 84 years. "Tennis is the only sport where you are constantly involved – running, hitting the ball and receiving it. That is why I competed at the highest level for so long and continued as a senior. It’s a wonderful sport."
Tony Trabert, the President of the International Tennis Hall of Fame who has known Mulloy since 1948, told ATPWorldTour.com, "He was very fit and the strongest thing he ever drank was milk. He always marched to his own drum. We first played one another at the US Nationals in 1949, when I was 19 and he beat me in four sets. In 1954, we met again on a Denver clay court when he was 41, and I beat him in five sets! We still speak once a month. His passion for tennis remains undimmed."
Looking back on a lifetime of memories, Mulloy believes that "Tennis was just as popular in the past, but the sport has completely changed. Prize money has sky rocketed and there are plenty of multi-millionaires. We played for peanuts. Everybody says that the players of today are better than years gone by, but that’s nonsense.
"Racquets, tennis balls and equipment development has changed the sport. But tennis ball covering is very thin now. Prior to World War II, the inner core was made of pure grey rubber, but due to the wartime demand for rubber, manufacturers substituted a black synthetic rubber substance and made the core thinner. It made the tennis ball faster in play, and, as we have seen over the past two decades, the number of players going to the net has decreased.
"If former generations – players such as Bill Tilden, Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer and Rod Laver – competed with the same equipment against the likes of [Rafael] Nadal, [Novak] Djokovic, [Andy] Murray and [Roger] Federer, they would still dominate at every tournament."
So would he enjoy competing on the ATP World Tour in 2014?
"I prefer the older days,” admitted Mulloy, who admires Federer's all-court game. "But you cannot overlook the money today."
During his top-flight tennis career, the lithe and athletic Mulloy maintained an interested following at every appearance. His nonchalant attitude and biting humour always caused great interest among the galleries. But his career could well have ended with the outbreak of war in Europe, which closed down world tennis. In 1939, he was 26 years old and a graduate manager at the University of Miami.
"When I hit the big time, World War II began, right at the peak of my age and ability," said Mulloy, who, at the time, had recently completed a law degree to appease his father. "People often forget my war service. I wanted to get into the Air Force, but they weren't taking anyone over the age of 25. I got a break on a U.S. Naval course as a ’90-day wonder’, meaning a four-year programme was crammed into three months of training. I ended up becoming a tennis instructor, but I wanted to go to sea."
Through sheer persistence and hard work, Mulloy ended up as a Lieutenant and a Commanding Office of a Landing Ship Tank: the U.S.S. LST 32, leading a crew of 13 officers and 154 men. "It took three or four years away from me, but I was proud to serve my country at four different battles – landing in harm’s way," said Mulloy. Launched on 12 July 1943, Mulloy led the California-built ship into action at beachheads in Anzio, Salerno, southern France and northern Africa. For one particular act of heroism he earned the U.S. Navy Medal of Commendation.
By the start of 1945, Mulloy's taste for tennis had returned, when the U.S. Navy Department posted him on a tour of Eastern seaboard hospitals with 52-year-old Tilden. He started to organise his own exhibitions with Alice Marble, Vincent Richards, Tilden and others. Only then did he consider staging a comeback on the international amateur circuit. "I recall people thought I was mad, but I wanted to play Davis Cup," said Mulloy. "I dedicated myself to getting back on the circus." He was 32 and married to his high school sweetheart, Madeleine – "the kindest most beautiful girl in the world" – with whom he raised two daughters, Diane and Janice. Sadly, Madeleine passed away in 1993, after 55 years of marriage.
Mulloy was one of the world’s best doubles players of the 1940s and 1950s, compiling a 5-9 record in Grand Slam championships finals that included four titles at the US Nationals with Bill Talbert. As a 43 year old, nicknamed 'The Grand Old Man Of Tennis', he picked up the 1957 Wimbledon title with Budge Patty. To put that feat in perspective, Leander Paes won his third US Open title at the age of 40 this year, in tandem with Radek Stepanek. Mulloy was also a singles runner-up to Frank Sedgman at the US Nationals in 1952, the year he was judged to be ranked World No. 7. He also lifted the Davis Cup trophy on three occasions.
He continued to play at Grand Slam championships until 1971, when he was 57, before devoting himself to senior competition. ITF President Francesco Ricci Bitti said, "Gardnar Mulloy is one of the iconic figures of ITF Seniors tennis. A three-time Davis Cup champion, he played an important role in the early development of veterans tennis, and has been a loyal and enthusiastic supporter ever since. In 1996, we were pleased to name our new men's 80-and-over team competition after him, and it is fitting that he celebrates his 100th birthday in the ITF's own centenary year."
This weekend, Mulloy will celebrate with his second wife, Jacqueline, and friends at their house, where he has lived for more than 60 years.
"I don't smoke or drink and I watch my diet very carefully," admitted Mulloy, a vegetarian. "But if I played today, I would need to cheat as I can’t maintain my balance. So I use a walker.
"However, if Wimbledon – still the world’s premier event – invited me to compete once again, I would be there in a flash!"
Happy Birthday, Gar. Enjoy the party.
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